Constitutional Law

9th Circuit says habeas case will continue despite petitioner's death


The apparent suicide of a habeas corpus petitioner four days after an en banc federal appeals court ruling revived part of his claim for relief won’t put a halt to the case.

In a brief Tuesday ruling (PDF), the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion to stay the mandate and vacate its Jan. 23 opinion, explaining that others will benefit from continuing the litigation.

“The precedent set by the en banc panel in this case will undoubtedly affect cases now pending before this court. We see no reason to undo this precedent and force future panels to duplicate our efforts by re-deciding issues we have already resolved within the contours of article III” of the U.S. Constitution, the court explained.

Meanwhile, only the defense will be prejudiced by continuing the case because of the death of petitioner Gregory Scott Dickens, the 9th Circuit noted.

Courthouse News reports that the Jan. 27 death of Dickens was an apparent suicide.

On Jan. 23, the 9th Circuit issued an en banc opinion (PDF) that upheld a federal district court’s dismissal of several other claims for habeas relief by Dickens but said his argument for resentencing based on ineffective assistance of counsel should be heard. He argued on appeal that his counsel did not present evidence of his organic brain damage at sentencing.

Dickens was sentenced to the death penalty after being convicted in Arizona of felony murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The 1991 double murder was committed by a juvenile that he had met while working at a juvenile facility in California. After Dickens moved to Arizona, the youth joined him there, the opinion explains, and the two planned a robbery, flipping a coin to decide who would conduct it.

As Dickens watched from the opposite side of Interstate 8, the teenager robbed a couple who had stopped in a rest area there and shot them to death with a .38-caliber revolver that belonged to Dickens. He then crossed the median in his truck and picked the perpetrator up without calling authorities or attempting to help the dying couple, Bryan and Laura Bernstein. They had been en route to California to begin graduate fellowships at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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